Bottle rockets win the day

How can one possibly read a book in the era of hot takes?

By hot takes, I mean those instant reactions all over social media and cable news. The 2005 version of the hot take is the cable news desk minutes after a major tragedy. The anchors offer opinions and fill the void as the live feed shows burning buildings. The 2019 version of the hot take is the tweet thread from a public intellectual [or theologian] over the news of the day, whether it is a tragedy or some salacious revelation.

Hot takes are like bottle rockets. They flash, move quickly, startle, and burn out in a second. Most fall harmlessly to the ground. Others strike objects or start fires.

Authority and wisdom are not like bottle rockets. Authority and wisdom are earned over time. They are the fruits of many labors and special skill. Authority and wisdom do not flash, move quickly, startle, or burn out in a second. A devious child has no use for either authority or wisdom.

Bottle rockets propel any speaker to momentary prominence and, often, obscure authority and wisdom. The accomplished historian or careful thinker is overwhelmed by a bottle rocket barrage. Onlookers shriek with excitement over the zing and flash of the latest rocket launch. The carefully crafted statement is laughably late.

If the mid-20th century was the age of the specialized expert, the teenage years of the 21st century are surely the age of the rocket launcher. Who has time to read the Mueller report when there are partisan slogans at hand? Better yet, who has time to read Burke when you have the Mueller report?

I don’t recognize the thought leaders of the so-called conservative movement. We have traded in authority and wisdom for bottle rockets. There seems to be a decided turn to youthful flash even in the conservative ranks.

Are new media types inherently more susceptible to bottle rockets than old media types? Yes, but newspaper commentaries, like tweets, were often ephemeral and shrieking. The form has had some impact, but it is not entirely to blame. Also, its not like hot takes are worse than duels or Preston Brooks’s cane. Our culture has been in worse shape.

Not one of us is immune to the allure of bottle rockets. We want the attention of the public even if it is for just a second. We don’t want to think carefully and slowly for fear of missing out. We take a seat by the fire and then fumble for our phones, leaving books sitting in stacks and serving as coasters. At least, this is what I find myself doing far too often.

I must admit that the bottle rockets have won the day. In the time it takes to get into a book, our leading public intellectuals have already dropped at least three necessary tweet threads. Public opinion is shifting faster than ever. It’s because our minds respond quickly to massed and coordinated rocket launches. Our culture changes in a flash.

I don’t blame conservatives and Christians for fighting rockets with rockets, but we have already given up a lot of territory by taking up the rocket game. Appeals to tradition, natural law, religious authority, etc. just don’t quite zing as well as a snappy bottle rocket.

To wrap up this wandering post, I’ll make a final point by saying that bottle rockets exacerbate partisanship because they trigger tribal loyalty and shallow thinking. One’s side cheers the flash of a friendly rocket and ducks for cover when rockets are sent back across the lines.

Rocket launching has deleterious consequences for us even if we win the day. Some part of one’s mind has to be suppressed during the launch sequence. Bottle rockets don’t have nuance, sympathy, or empathy. There is no weighing of the argument when your holding the stick of a bottle rocket in one hand and a lighter in the other.

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